You might wonder: how difficult could it be to leave an incredibly haunted room full of glowing purple holes that no one wanted to stay in anyway?
As you might expect, the answer was: difficult, especially if you’re Awk.
As Awk kept attempting to make his way down one of the glow-holes, Harry spoke with one of the merpeople. Interestingly, when pressed about the fishing situation, the mermaid was unaware of any strained relationships with the town.
“We did have a strange visitor a while back,” she said after Harry asked about the water tendrils. “He looked like us, but had these glowing red eyes. He was called Yuval and he had the ability to control some water.”
“What about the ominous holes?” Awk called from, you guessed it, an ominous hole.
“Those appeared some time after he was here,” the mermaid said and thought. “Several moons.”
Harry nodded and considered. “Do you guys know about, uh…those cube jellies?”
The mermaid smiled. “Oh, them? Nasty little folk. They’re not so bad if you know what to look for.”
“Oh,” Harry said, “we did not.”
Harry asked if the merpeople had a leader and we found that her name was M’shel. When asked, the mermaid did not know about Durnen, not by name and not even when Harry called him a “red-eyed glowy man” which was not a bad way to describe him. The dragonborn was also able to navigate the delicate question of “what the hell happened to all our clams” though the mermaid gave him a dubious look.
Awk tried playing with the hole, but then we all got mad at him and eventually he gave up.
Felegum, Harry, Helli, Awk, and I swam back to the middle cavern. Awk debated becoming a toad before diving in and Felegum noticeably balked.
“Do you have a problem with frogs?” Awk asked.
Felegum looked uncomfortable. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Awk became an otter instead, which was both thoughtful and also damning, considering Harry’s A-for-effort attempts at convincing the merpeople we had nothing to do with the clam raid. Anyway, we got back to the dry land right outside of the oyster garden and/or mer-pantry only to find Zen and Zeno making out.
Harry stayed in the water. “Get a room, you two!”
A door appeared to obscure Zen and Zeno, with a sock on the handle. Eventually, it opened and then vanished. “You’re using your diplomacy for all the wrong, reasons,” Zeno said, shaking his head.
Zen looked embarrassed.
Zeno smiled at her. “I’ll be back, my little yoohoo.”
I cringed, almost audibly.
“You scamp,” Felegum said.
“Can we…talk to the leader now?” I said, going for something, anything, that would make this less awkward.
“Sure. Hey kid, you want to give the next one a shot?” Zeno winked at me in what was supposed to be inspiring, I guess. I feel like legs are kind of important to me, but then again I’ve never really thought about that kind of thing. I just had an idea and I was mad at Awk for wasting time at the glowy holes.
Anyway, we drank our Potions of Water Breathing (Kheryph the lizard did not enjoy it anymore the second time, but too bad) to be able to talk to the merpeople, swam out, and then I accidentally swum into M’shel, which was embarrassing and also confirmed to me that no, never was this going to work out. We asked her about the water tendrils.
“Did they look like the wacky waving inflatable tube man?” She said, thoughtfully.
“THEY DID,” Felegum and I said in disbelief.
M’shel confirmed that then these were likely also the work of Yuval, the red-eyed merdude and Felegum began a lengthy sides of negotiations about how to resolve the issue between the mercommunities and Janwald. To M’shel’s knowledge, nothing was wrong– she was unaware that trade had been disrupted by the water tendrils and boats getting destroyed venturing even beyond the shallows.
Felegum proposed a meeting in four days time at the Janwald docks to talk things out between the merfolk and the villagers. The lake did have certain territories, and those sounded like they’d been pretty contested even before Yuval came along. M’shel did seem concerned that the fishermen had been forced out of their territory by something, though.
I asked the mermaid Harry had been talking to earlier what this place was called and she said it was just their takk, the word for home in their language. Which made sense, considering that everyone here seemed to be in one big family.
There were a few other merfamilies in the area, too, which M’shel planned on contacting before her takk began a move. They had a few options: move into the cube jelly side of the area (not highly recommended), move elsewhere in Lake Norka, possibly in with another takk, or head ti the ocean.
“Wait, you guys can breathe in the ocean and in freshwater?” Felegum asked.
M’Shel shot him an isn’t-that-obvious look.
“God, Felegum.” Zeno tsked and shook his head. “It’s like you were birthed by mapmakers.”
“I was,” the sorcerer said.
It was at this point that I unveiled my brilliant idea: if the merpeople were going to leave, then what would happen to the rare delicacy of the white algae that they’d been growing down here? Surely they wouldn’t want to transplant all of it in their new takk, or maybe they wouldn’t be able to. Maybe they would need money for trade, or to finance outfitting their new place of residence.
“So,” I concluded, “if you do find a need to off-load your algae, there’s a man named Quincy who lost his boat to the water tendrils bringing us to come see you and we’d greatly appreciate it if you sold exclusively to him.”
I mean, I didn’t grow up watching my parents haggle for shit for nothing. Besides, if he had to spend all his gems on getting a new ship, then there was no way we were seeing any money from Big Q.
“I’ll consider it,” M’shel said after a moment. Good enough.
“Also,” I added, “I’d like some. For services rendered.”
“The tethis plant?” She cocked her head and smiled. “Of course.”
She had someone fetch a small package of it, wrapped up in these giant grape leaf things. I tucked it away. And that was it, the whole dastardly plan.
Zeno seemed sad I wasn’t making a play at the merleader, so he followed M’shel as we all made our way to the exit. “What about those whirling blades of death, huh?”
She wrinkled her brow. “Whirling blades of death? I’ve never had an issue with them.”
“Oh,” I said nonchalantly, “I’ve never had issues with them either.”
Awk generously gave his spare Potion of Water Breathing to Zeno, but only after Zeno started to struggle when his own potion ran out. The merpeople were also kind enough to lead us to the nearest island, which is, coincidentally, where we found a lean-to, a raft-in-progress, and several motley looking people cooking a fish around a fire.
“Quincy, is that you?” Felegum called.
“Ah,” the captain said, “so you made it back alive.”
Zeno waved emphatically. “Quincy!”
I’m not sure what happened underwater to make them such bros now, but apparently they are or whatever, because there was definitely a bro nod exchanged.
“Quincy,” Zeno continued, “we have solved your merfolk issue.”
“We have a bigger problem.” Quincy gestured at the injured man under the lean-to, the not-quite-raft, the tiny fire and mediocre fish–basically the whole island.
Zeno waved it off in true negotiator style. “It’ll be fine.”
“How? No one lives here.” Quincy shook his head. “One of my men is injured and we have no ship.”
“Also, good news,” Harry added, “we have four days to get back to town.”
That was what we’d all agreed on: M’shel would talk to the other takks and families in the lake and our group would talk with the townspeople, and there would be a long and damp meeting where this mystery would get solved. It kind of bothered me that the merpeople had no idea where Juval was. Like, he could still be out there waiting to attack us again, potentially.
Felegum nudged me as Quincy harangued Zeno about all how bad things were. “Do you have any healing left?”
“No.” I snorted. “I used all mine to bring you back from the jello.”
“Oh, right,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Let me take a look at this fellow,” Zeno said grandly, reaching for his bagpipes and heading to the injured man, who was very much in pain and insisting he wanted no musical accompaniment. This was never going to deter Zeno, we all knew it.
I took advantage of the moment to question Quincy about what one could do with the tethis plant. He nodded appreciatively when I showed him our winnings. “That,” he said, “makes everything better.”
“Spices.” I nodded. “Got it.”
I wasn’t the best chef or anything, but I knew a little about spice. I was excited to try it out on over dinner.
Meanwhile, Zeno was in full medical mode. He’d been piping to the deckhand who had been impaled, a seaman by the name of Johnson, and had already cured the man of sepsis. Johnson, conversely, seemed to have reversed his opinion on bagpipes.
With a flourish when his song was over, Zeno proclaimed, “Cadavera unstabra!” and lo, Johnson was wounded from his impalement no longer.
The bard bowed to Quincy. “Voila.”
By this time it was about mid-day, and the group gathered a little away from the crew to discuss plans.
“I’m a little concerned about the red-eyed dude,” Zeno said. “Still in the vicinity and all. But how will we get home?”
“That,” Harry mused, “is the issue.”
Part of the problem was that, not knowing if Yuval or other similar red-eyed wielders of wacky wavers were in the water, we weren’t sure if it would be safe to sail directly back to Janwald. Our map said we’d need to cross less lake heading north, but that was also in the precise opposite direction of the village. Of course, there was to the east another village–
Quincy sauntered over and looked at our map. “Oh? That’s Guara. It’s been abandoned for months.”
We decided to get a boat ready first and worry about directions later.
Zeno sat down on the shore. “I have no interest in manual labor.”
“Quincy,” Felegum turned back to the captain, “what were you going to do to get back?”
Thus, Quincy detailed his raft-building plan, albeit slowed down a bit by Johnson, since everyone on the crew wanted to make sure he recovered before trying to move him. Now that the seaman was once again in fighting shape, raft construction could begin in earnest.
We decided to split into two crews: exploration and boat-building. There was another island close by with an incredibly tall spire that seemed almost impossibly large for the side of the landmass, and we figured having some people at camp to help with the raft would be a show of good faith and probably get us back in time.
Exploration crew consisted of me, Zeno (surprise), and Helli, while boat crew was Felegum, Harry (“I have… woodcarving tools?”), and Awk (who transformed into a giant beaver for the occasion). Felegum used Control Earth to help uproot trees more easily, Awk became the first druid to deforest a place, and Harry made sure that everything was ship-shape and artisanal.
“Hey, Quincy!” Felegum called just as Helli, Zeno, and I walked into the forest. “Want me to make your raft bigger?”
We all sort of knew what was coming, so we just headed into the vegetation. Zeno found some humanoid tracks and fire rings, I was looking for food and did not find anything, and Helli found a hollowed out hill where things once may looked to have been stored, but were there no longer.
“Do we check that one?” Zeno asked after some time, pointing to the large spire island in the distance.
Half an hour later, Kherpyh was upset again because we’d swum the quarter mile of water between the islands. The shore part looked about the same, but then the land began to slope up very aggressively into the spire shape. Helli was able to find holds and ledges and it took us about forty-five minutes to walk around the base of the spire. According to Helli, a certified rock gnome, this was not a normal or natural kind of formation, even though it was made out of normal things.
But we wouldn’t know for sure what was going on it with it unless we got a little closer.
And for that–
“Come here, kid.” Zeno popped a squat and gestured for me to climb up. “I’ll give you a lift.”
I tentatively approached. “Okay.”
“Do your wings work?” He asked as he hoisted me up to start climbing to a ledge.
“No,” I grunted as I climbed. I hadn’t really tried them out very much, but since they were literally just panes of light whenever I manifested them they didn’t seem very strong. Anyway, thanks to years of climbing buildings, I managed to get to the narrow ledge thirty feet above Helli and Zeno. It wasn’t super elegant or anything, but I didn’t die and sometimes that’s all that counts.
Deciding to press my luck, I climbed higher and felt the rock change under my hands as I went. Weird. Obviously I had no idea what this meant, so I took out a dagger and stabbed at the new rock, sending some chips down to Helli, who would hopefully know what to do.
Helli cradled her new rock samples lovingly, pronounced that they were indeed magical, and we took a short break. Zeno attuned to his fancy weapon and played music and the lizard jumped around and ate some flies. You know, lizard things.
By the time we swam back to the non-spire island that housed the shipwrecked crew, Awk had transformed into an otter and come up with some fish. I broke out the tethis plant to season mine with and it tasted earthy and briny, and like something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
I let Felegum and Zeno try the tethis plant too. Harru was not about it, saying we didn’t know what it would do, but this is a delicacy, right? Delicacies aren’t supposed to kill you. Anyway, Felegum said it was like cinnamon and cardamom, whatever those are, and Zeno said allspice and nutmeg with a little black pepper.
“It tastes like Zen,” Zeno concluded.
I grimaced, unrolled my sleeping kit, and headed to sleep.
It was the dream again.
I was in an unending span of desert, sand snaking through the air as a storm rumbled in the distance, making the sky seem almost purple in its grays. There was a smoky figure near the horizon line, the same as always, and a whispering. First in one ear, then the other. And then that persistent feeling, like a chill along the base of my spine, that if I just listened a little harder I’d be able to understand the words.
It was like having someone almost touch you, but not quite– coming close enough that you could feel that something was there, just waiting for you to move.
I woke up in a rush, sweating and angry, and stalked off to the shoreline, taking out my dagger and stabbing it into the water.
I’d gone for so long without one of those dreams. Why now? Was it because I wasn’t chasing as hard as I normally was, because I hadn’t had any leads since that damn apple? That had never seemed to matter before, but ignoring the dreams was easier when I had a mark.
I stabbed the water. Again. If there were fish in here, they were long fled. The other people in camp were starting to get up. I hadn’t exactly been quiet.
“Hey Set,” Harry called cautiously by the fire. “You, uh, okay?”
“No,” I said, bitter and newly tired. Why was I even here?
Almost unbelievably, a fish swam up. My hands curled around the hilt of my dagger. Maybe I really had been stupid this whole time. Tools had specific uses. You didn’t ask a knife to be notebook or a clock or to play music for you. A knife was a knife, and its job was to cut through anything that got in its way.
I held in a breath and then lunged at the fish.
Then, I anticlimactically lost my footing and landed ass-first in the shallows of the lake. The fish, needless to say, disappeared.
Felegum threw some hardtack into the water and got nothing. “Well, guys,” he said after a long, awkward while of me trying not to look like a giant idiot and failing, “no fish.”
We ate rations instead and then set off, dragging the raft northward along the island shores. The plan was to avoid good old Yuval and his water wacky wavers, which meant going the polar opposite direction on the map. Weird, because I could have sworn that this way was taking us closer to Janwald, not farther from it. Awk transformed into a beaver to pull the raft with us, we rafted peaceably to the mainland’s shore, and the dark clouds that had been gathering above us finally broke into a light rain.
By Quincy’s estimates, it would take at least a day’s journey to round the lake. I felt like he was definitely wrong– it didn’t make any sense given the map– but chose not to correct him since we technically owed him a ship and had three days anyway. The company keep in good spirits despite the miserable weather.
“I am starving,” Zeno moaned.
“I miss Dronie,” Felegum said.
We stopped to make camp for the night and broke into groups to deal with the process of finding a meal. Pretty much everyone’s rations had run out– who truthfully would have expected this day trip to mer-world to take so long? — and the situation was turning dire.
Awk and Felegum left to go to the woods– Awk, because he’s a druid and must therefore know how to survive out there somehow, and Felegum, who apparently knew how to use a crossbow this whole time thanks to his travels with his mapmaker parents. Or something. I don’t know. I just headed back to the shore, determined to do better this time. Harry followed, bringing his trident.
It was funny, because I would move to try to find more fish in the shallows and then Harry would move, and we’d usually keep the same distance between us. I kind of wanted to explain at first that I was trying to give him more territory to hunt, but I also hadn’t survived this long by not being able to tell when I was getting followed.
That was…surprisingly nice, coming from him.
Then I saw it. A fish.
I abandoned all hope of stabbing it and just cast Sleep on it instead. It had worked with the merpeople. And lo, it worked on the fish– it fell asleep, I yeeted it toward land, but it didn’t quite make it all the way there, so I had to run after it, yeet one final time, and then stab it decisively, but it was dead.
I had gotten a fish.
“Well done, Set.” Harry clapped me on the shoulder. “You have succeeded where I have failed.”
“Harry, you have to help me cook my fish!” For a moment, I forgot about all the bad stuff. I’d never caught a fish before. I composed myself hastily because I still had to be cool. “Let’s take the spoils back to camp.”
Altogether, we had a pretty good dinner assortment: Felegum had bolted a rabbit, Harry and I triumphantly had the fish, Awk found some berries, and Helli found some mushrooms and nuts. Zeno, apparently, also found this form of manual labor distasteful.
Awk cast Cure Light Wounds on Seaman Johnson (who was officially back to fighting form) and Felegum, at my insistence, cast Enlarge on the fish, which was huge for like a minute but then went back to normal. So much for my plan to have a lot of food.
Additionally, Awk did not seem happy with the rabbit. As we ate, he went into the forest and gathered edible flowers to take the rabbit warren.
Meanwhile, we put together a nice fish and rabbit stew with mushrooms and berries and seasoned it with the last of the salt.
As we sate, Zeno pulled out the Bag With No Holes.
“Do we really have to do this here?” Harry frowned over his bowl.
“I’ll cast Protection from Evil on you,” Felegum said.
“It’ll be fine,” Zeno said.
It was, in some senses, dinner entertainment. Helli, Harry, and I stayed back at camp with the crew, while Zeno and Felegum walked off.
“Here, hold this,” Zeno said, tossing the Bag to Felegum.
“Okay,” Felegum said, then paused. “Why do I need to hold this?”
Zeno got out Shatterspike.
The three of us back at camp exchanged a long look as they headed off. We all waited for an explosion or something terrible, but all that happened was that Awk returned from his visit to the rabbits and Felegum and Zeno apparently really did get the Bag with No Holes open.
For a time. Then I guess it sealed itself back up.
When Felegum and Zeno returned, they showed off their findings. There was a twelve-sided runestone that had a white light inside of it, rotating counterclockwise, next was a cube that disintegrated and then rebuilt itself, and then finally the pebble from earlier.
“What happens if you roll it?” Awk asked, poking the runestone.
Zeno carefully swept it out of harm’s way. “This is the next puzzle, dear, I don’t want it to roll into the lake.”
Felegum, meanwhile, was fascinated by the cube and proceeded to study it over dinner. Helli knew a bit about artificer’s lore and was able to conclude that both items (besides not the pebble) were not from this plane and were in fact from two different planes.
“Do not sell these or lose these,” she said.
Felegum nodded mournfully. “The regular sides of the cube make me think of Dronie.”
“Do you think,” Harry pondered, “Dronie thought about the dagger in his back or just how cold it was?”
There was a moment of awkward silence, made even more awkward by Awk transforming into a bunny by the pile of discarded rabbit bones.
Felegum attacked the bunny with his bow and Harry threw two darts at it, all of them missing. Bunny-Awk burrowed underground, and Felegum sighed, said “whatever,” and put his bow away while Harry collected his darts. In an act of sheer Awk-dom, the druid turned back into a gnome underground and grabbed Harry’s ankle.
Harry attacked, Awk had a snare of weeds ready to go, and then Felegum yelled, “Awk, stop fucking around!” and the gnome stopped.
The dragonborn loomed over Awk. “Gnome, you think it wise to prance as a food animal in front of a bunch of hungry people?”
Awk looked like he was going to argue but Harry cut him off.
“Gnome,” Harry said again, lower, “you think it wise to pop up and attack a party member?”
The situation diffused, not easily.
“What a day!” Zeno savored the stew and slung an arm around my shoulder. “I even cast an illusory fish for Set and he missed it!”
I had had no idea, actually. I kind of appreciated that Zeno wanted to do something nice, even though I would have been really angry to not catch anything when I was so hungry. Instead, I began the lengthy but hopefully worthwhile task of teaching Kheryph Celestial. The lizard followed my hand when I pointed at things and said stuff, which I felt was a promising start. I rewarded him with one of my remaining baneberries for his scholarly efforts.
“Zeno,” Harry muttered, still loud enough that I could hear him, “a silver piece says that the lizard learns that language faster than Awk learns Draconic.”
Zeno snorted. “I’m not taking the other side of that bet.”
“The word for ‘rabbit’ in Draconic,” Felegum said, turning to Awk, “is ‘meshi.'”
Awk nodded. “Okay.”
“It means ‘food,'” Felegum said.
Awk considered this. “What’s the word for ‘murderer?'”
“It’s the same as the word for ‘dragon.'”
We split up for various watches: Harry and Felegum took first watch, Helli and Awk were the middle shift, and Zeno and I made up dawn patrol. I was pleased to have no more weird-ass dreams and watched the pink sky brighten as Zeno woke the group with a reel. Overnight, Felegum had also figured out a use for the disintegrating cube.
“It always pulls itself back together, no matter how far the pieces are apart.” He demonstrated. “We could all use this to keep track of each other.”
“That’s…” I struggled for the right word. “Kind of heartwarming.”
Awk tilted his head. “Do they all converge to the same spot?”
As it turned out, the cube fragments didn’t– they moved to a central point– which meant that it would be a little less useful to locate a missing party member in a large group, say. Still, it would work for two people, so Felegum took one half and handed the other to Zeno.
Zeno held it up and smiled ruefully. “I appreciate this, but I more appreciate my freedom.”
Felegum cocked an eyebrow. “Not into commitment?”
The bard shrugged. “Can’t tie me down, man.”
It was at this point that Awk remembered that he could cast Goodberry for us and give us berries that made us not feel hungry any more so we wouldn’t have to scavenge.
“Now we don’t need to eat for the rest of the day!” The gnome said happily.
I looked down at my berry before eating it. “Sometimes,” I said softly, “food is about more than fuel.”
A few other people asked why Awk hadn’t produced the goodberries earlier when we were really struggling and he made some excuse, but I’m going to bet that he just forgot. We walked on for a while, hopefully in the right direction, though I strongly doubted it, and a town emerged. There were lots of people unloading things from horses and an assemblage of carriages. It didn’t look like Janwald.
“Where is this?” I narrowed my eyes.
“Guara,” Felegum answered. “A town that’s supposed to be abandoned.”